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Graham v. John Deere Co.

    Brief Fact Summary. Graham (Plaintiff) submitted a plow accessory that was an extension of the state-of-the-art design for a patent.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A device is not patentable when it is an obvious extension of the state of the art for that type of device.

    Facts. Graham (Plaintiff) submitted for patenting a plow chisel that, because of its flexible nature, supposedly had certain advantages when used in certain types of soil. The Patent Office denied the patent application, finding the design just an extension of the state of the art, and an obvious improvement on technology already in existence. The court of appeals affirmed, and the United States Supreme Court granted review.

    Issue.Is a device patentable when it is an obvious extension of the state of the art for that type of device?

    Held.(Clark, J.) No. A device is not patentable when it is an obvious extension of the state of the art for that type of device. Section 103 of the Patent Act, enacted in 1952, mandates nonpatentability in the case of designs that would be obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the field related to the design in question. This section appears to be a codification of the long-standing judicial requirement that a device, to be patentable, must be the result of something more than the ordinary skill found in the field. Instead, a higher level of ingenuity is required. Basically, the work must be the product of an inventor, not a skilled mechanic. In this case, the Patent Office found that the chisel in question did not represent a leap forward in design technology but rather was a logical design improvement that anyone skilled in the field could have been designed. This finding, not clearly incorrect, leads to the result that, under § 103 of the Patent Act, the chisel was not patentable. Affirmed.

    Discussion. The enactment of § 103 constituted the first statutory addition of an element of patentability since the beginning of the republic. The 1790 Patent Act instituted the dual requirements of novelty and utility. These two requirements remained the cornerstones of patent law until the addition of § 103. Arguments were made that § 103 was an attempt to relax the judicially-imposed requirement of greater-than-ordinary skill in a device’s creation, but the Court held the section to be a codification of the rule.


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